Living Sustainably: Put nature to work for more effective gardening

By Kelly Goward, Macatawa Area Coordinating Council
The urban environment is dominated by buildings, pavement, lawns, and other non-natural elements.
We constantly struggle against nature to maintain our built environment, especially our lawns and gardens.
This can include the use of fertilizers and pesticides that, if used improperly, can cause environmental harm. Our built landscapes can also be very water intensive, which can lead to high demand on our public water utilities.
However, there are ways to work with nature to create an attractive, low maintenance landscape that will help protect the environment, conserve water and provide places for urban wildlife.
Gardening with nature starts with careful planning. Take an inventory of what you already have.
What are your soils like? Are they dry and sandy, or wet and clayey? How much sunlight does your yard get? Are there problem areas where plants struggle to grow? These are a few questions to get you started.

Next think about what your goals and objectives are for the property. A goal is what you want to achieve, such as, “I want to create a water efficient landscape.” Objectives are what you will do and when to meet your goals, such as, “Reduce my lawn and plant a butterfly garden next spring.” It helps to write down your goals and objectives, because from there, you can outline the steps necessary to bring your goals to reality.
There are some specific things you should think about when gardening with nature. They include selecting the right plants for your soil and sunlight conditions, minimizing pesticide and fertilizer use, and conserving water.
Using native plants can help with all of these as they are adapted to local conditions, do not require fertilizers or pesticides, and should not need to be watered once established.
Also, look for alternatives to fertilizer, like compost or compost tea. Not only does compost add nutrients, but it also supports healthy soil biology, which can help plants take up nutrients and fight off disease.
Water conservation can be achieved by first selecting the right plant species, but also by adding mulch to reduce evaporation from the soil. Also, consider installing a rain barrel to capture rain water for irrigation.
The Sept. 22 Living Sustainably Along the Lakeshore Virtual Event will explore some of these ideas and more. The event will discuss gardening practices that help manage stormwater on your property as well as tips for conserving water. We will also hear about some work the City of Holland is doing to manage community stormwater.
The online program, “Gardening with Nature,” will be Tuesday, Sept. 22, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Register at
Speakers will include Kelly Goward, environmental program manager at the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council, and Emily Damaska, conservation program specialist at the Holland Board of Public Works.
Kelly Goward is the environmental program manager at the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council. She works with the local communities to improve, restore and protect Lake Macatawa and the surrounding landscape.

This Week’s Sustainability Framework Theme
Environmental Awareness/Action: Environmental education and integrating environmental practices into our planning will change negative outcomes of the past and improve our future.

Living Sustainably is a collection of community voices sharing updates about local sustainability initiatives. It is presented by the Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute, a joint project of Hope College, the City of Holland and Holland Board of Public Works. Go to for more information.

Native milkweed, here in a garden by the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council office, grows naturally with little need for the gardener’s assistance.
Using the right plants, like these cardinal flowers and brown-eyed susan, can produce healthy gardens that minimize need for pesticide, fertilizer and water.
Using plants well-suited to the region, like black-eyed susan and purple coneflower, lets nature help the gardener.